As we’ve grappled with recent discourse around solutions to the epidemic of police violence that overwhelmingly affects people of color, we—as the leadership of Dr. Bronner’s—have discussed whether “Defund the Police” is the right message for our company. What does “Defund the Police” mean exactly? How will it be interpreted by our customers? Is there consensus within the company around “Defund the Police” as a policy and message?
“Defund the Police” as a term elicits so many different responses based on life experience, ideology, and culture. We expect that anything our company might say about defunding the police may be controversial and misunderstood. In conversations with members of our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee the idea arose that for all those who are hesitant about “Defund the Police” as a rallying cry, we could start with five changes we can make right now, that would have significant impact—and that exist alongside the idea that it’s still time to reprioritize police responsibilities and reallocate resources, which is what it means to defund the police.
The following are five changes (+1) that we believe would fundamentally improve public safety for the better. These changes scratch the surface of the body of work that communities working for racial justice have developed to envision a better future. We share these with you in hopes you’ll do your own further research on the change we need to improve our society for everyone.
1. Federal guidelines and requirements for in-depth extensive training
The government needs to implement a state-mandated, federally required minimum standard and guidelines for all police departments across the United States.
Currently, 37 U.S. states allow for a police officer to defer training, meaning an untrained officer is allowed to patrol, detain, arrest, incarcerate and even kill without ever having gone through basic police training (Institute for Training Reform). A 2013 study by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that the average police officer receives less than six months of basic training. In addition to inadequate training time, there is a disproportionate emphasis on tactical skills such as firearms training and self-defense, while there is a lack of training on diversity, racial bias, and de-escalation.
Training and education for police officers is severely lacking when compared to other government professions, such as social workers who require both a bachelor’s and master’s degree to begin work.
2. End Qualified Immunity
In June of 2020, congress members Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts) and Justin Amash (L-Michigan) introduced a bill to end qualified immunity which would restore a person’s ability to obtain relief when police officers violate their legal and constitutionally secured rights. The hope is that if officers could be held accountable for harmful actions taken on the job, they would be less likely to use excessive force.
Qualified Immunity dates as far back as 1967 but the law was first used to defend police officers in 1982 (USA Today). The law shields police officers from liability for all actions taken while on the job except those that defy clearly established laws. The problem is that victims need to prove that the Supreme Court or a Federal Court of Appeals in the same district has defined the exact same action as being unconstitutional—which is hard to prove.
Because of Qualified Immunity, a police officer was able to return to work and suffered no consequences after shooting a 10-year-old child—because there wasn’t a clearly defined law that states a police officer cannot shoot into a crowd of children (Institute for Justice).
3. Mandate and expand the national decertification index to require all law enforcement agencies in the U.S. to report not only decertification but any form of complaints of police misconduct.
Wouldn’t you want to know if a police officer in your community was fired due to complaints of excessive force or even sexual assault?
Currently, the National Decertification Index is a private organization that offers its services for free to any law enforcement agency in the United States. But the organization lacks the funding to promote and expand its operations (NBC).
If a police officer is fired from one department, they can still apply for a job in a different jurisdiction without their new employers ever having knowledge of their previous misconduct. Having a national database would treat officers like doctors and lawyers, who lose their professional licenses and are barred from practicing in the industry. Many have argued that this method of accountability should be federally enforced for all law enforcement agencies including Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Such a database would support the demands of groups like Movement for Black Lives and BYP100 for mandatory reporting of deaths that occur while in police custody.
4. End the militarization of law enforcement
“Since 1990, the U.S. Department of Defense has transferred over $6 billion in military equipment to local law enforcement agencies, including school and campus police, through the Excess Property 1033 Grant program.” – Movement for Black Lives.
Not only do military-grade weapons have no place in our communities, but they are also disproportionately deployed against Black, Brown, and low-income/working-class communities. Most recently, we have seen military weapons being used during peaceful protests with children present (M4BL).
5. Disconnect health, educational, and community services from the criminal justice system.
Currently, law enforcement officers are the first responders for mental health crises, school incidents, and drug-related public health emergencies (NPR).
According to data from the Washington Post, since 2015, nearly one quarter of all people killed by police officers have a known mental health illness (Washington Post – Fatal Force). And while $13 million have been poured into the COPS Anti-Methamphetamine Program, there has been little to no progress in law enforcement’s solution to the public health problem of methamphetamine use (M4BL).
Children become easy targets for police as well. While many school districts struggle to pay for the salaries of qualified teachers, counselors, nurses, and administrators, they rely on police officers to maintain order, respond to sexual assault violations, and address students at risk of suicide without having adequate training.
In addition to complaints of excessive force and the disproportionate punishment of Black and Brown children which contribute to the school to prison pipeline, researchers have found that School Resource Officers (SROs) can escalate situations. For example, in a case where a student refuses to listen to a teacher, rather than a minor in-school suspension, the student can be arrested and criminally cited with “unruly juvenile” charges. Congressional research conducted in 2013 found that: “Research in this area is limited to a small number of studies, but these suggest that children in schools with SROs might be more likely to be arrested for low-level offenses,” exacerbating the school-to-prison pipeline. One Texas study found links between SROs and lower high school graduation rates (Chalk Beat).
6. Defund the Police = Reprioritize Police Responsibilities and Reallocate Resources
At Dr. Bronner’s we interpret defunding the police to mean reprioritizing responsibilities and reallocating resources. We can stop spending tax dollars on so many of the discredited, dangerous, and racist parts of policing and instead invest that money in community-driven solutions that foster real health, peacekeeping, and safety. So, rather than endlessly growing police budgets, we can increase funding for things that people need, such as, affordable housing, job training, education, healthcare, mental health treatment and counseling, substance-use treatment and counseling, childcare, parks and recreation, and community centers and libraries.
Dr. Bronner’s has pledged $1 million over 10 years (between 2020-2030) to the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) and we are proud to support their work andleadershipin the movement for racial justice. They are doing important work to rethink municipal budgets in a way that redirects responsibilities and associated resources that police should not be engaged on and invests in community-based violence prevention programs and crisis response teams that are proven to work (John Jay College). At Dr. Bronner’s our philanthropy and activism is particularly focused on ending the drug war and removing police entirely from interacting with people struggling in the throes of addiction, which is a health problem, not a criminal one. We believe that it is senseless to criminalize behavior that would be better handled by a professional and compassionate social safety system.
Writing, research, and development of this article was contributed by members of Dr. Bronner’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee including: Jolana Watson, Bertine Kabellis, La-Rene Malcolm, and Tito Mays.
UMD Americans on Police Reform Survey
Gallup Center on Black Voices
Gallup Center on Black Voices
USA Today Qualified Immunity
Hidden Common Ground Poll
Vox / Data For Progress
Movement 4 Black Lives 2020 Policy Platform
Institute for Justice
Institute for Training Reform
NBC – National Database
NPR – Mental Health and Police Violence
Washington Post – Fatal Force
Congressional Research Service
Court of Appeals Decision for the case of a 10-Year-Old Shot by Police
John Jay College of Criminal Justice Research and Evaluation Center